After all donations given by the people for the Mishkan (Tabernacle) were collected, the tribal leaders gave their portion. The problem was that by that time, there was virtually nothing left to give because the people’s donations had covered almost all of the expenses. The only thing left were the stones on the breastplate of the Cohen Gadol (High Priest). The tribal leaders had lost an opportunity and were not part of the momentous building project of constructing a central yet portable synagogue that would accompany the Jews wherever they found themselves in the dessert and later in the Land of Israel until Solomon’s Temple was built.
And the leaders brought the shoham stones and filling stones for the ephod and for the Breastplate. (Exodus 35:27)
Why did these leaders wait so long before making a donation? Rashi addresses this question and cites a Midrash:
This is what the tribal leaders said, ‘Let the community donate what they will donate, and whatever they are missing (i.e., whatever is left to be donated), we will complete.” Since the community completed everything…the leaders said, “What are we to do?” So they brought the shoham stones.
Their intentions seemed noble; they wanted to let others have the opportunity to give. If so, why were they chastised? Rashi continues,
Since at first they were lazy (i.e., they did not immediately donate), a letter was removed from their name. [The word “leaders” is intentionally misspelled by omitting a letter (the Hebrew letter “yud.”)]
This Midrash is difficult to understand. Why are the leaders accused of laziness for initially abstaining from the donating materials; after all, their decision wasn’t based on laziness, it was due to their mistaken assumption that the people would not donate all that was needed and they would be there to donate the rest? Imagine a shul commencing a building campaign and soliciting a wealthy person in the community. If (s)he told them, collect as much as you can and it would be my pleasure to fill in whatever is missing. This would be a dream for any building committee. As such, why are the leaders criticized for being lazy for seemingly exhibiting the same sentiment?
The Midrash is teaching that sometimes when we delay an opportunity to perform a good deed, even when we think we do so for noble reasons, the real motivation might be laziness. An example of this is found in the introduction Chovos HaLevavos (Duties of the Heart) , the 11th century classic (written in Arabic) on character development and productivity. In the introduction the author, Bachya ibn Pakuda, writes that after he conceived the idea to compose his work, he quickly decided against it for a number of reasons.
But as soon as I began on my decision to write the book, it occurred to me that someone like me was not equipped to write it. I believed I was incapable of dividing it into its appropriate sections, which seemed so difficult for me, and that I was too dull witted and incapable to expressing myself well enough in the Arabic language…I was afraid I was burdening myself with something that would only demonstrate my limitations, and that I was over stepping my bounds. So I convinced myself to change my mind and not do what I had decided to do.
But as soon as I began removing this vexing burden from myself and excusing myself from writing, I began to wonder if I was sanctioning leisure and a lazy life of inaction and comfort. I realized that it was my personal cravings that were having me abandon my idea, that they were inclining me toward rest and relaxation, and urging me to stop and wallow in laziness instead.
His first thoughts for explaining why he was not fit to write the book seemed to have been motivated by humility but upon reflection he realized that those explanations weren’t causes but rather excuses. The real reason for his not wanting to write the book was laziness. He simply did not want the responsibility of assembling what ultimately became one of the greatest guides for life ever to emanate from the Jewish world.
The tribal leaders said that they were waiting for everyone to give so that they would be able to fill in whatever was missing and they might have even believed that they had the right intentions but, according to the Midrash, the actual reason was due in some part to laziness.
Certainly, there are occasions when we have legitimate reasons to delay or abstain from performing a good deed. Sometimes we are justifiably burdened by other responsibilities that indeed deserve priority, and sometimes it is true that we are not worthy to assume lofty challenges. However, we need to examine our decisions with brutal honesty, to determine whether our reasons for not doing a mitzvah (or anygood deed) are the real cause or are they merely excuses.
We don’t have to look too hard to find examples of how laziness holds us back from doing what we need to. As we have seen from the tribal leaders, the yetzer hara, internal drive, of laziness is so cunning that it can clothe itself in some of the most admirable of traits, in particular that of humility. Virtually every rabbi and shul President can attest to the fact that it is a tendency in some people to underestimate themselves by claiming that they are greatly limited in their talents and cannot take charge of a project or event that will benefit the community. For others, they say that learning basic Hebrew or study of Talmud takes too much concentration and they can’t handle it. It is fascinating because many of these people manage to study and get licensed in a profession, learn a hobby that takes education and training how to read music or but they didn’t think they had brains for some basic Jewish stuff but this kind of humility might really stem from the yetzer hara, but laziness and the desire to take it easy might be the real reason. have its origin in laziness, which is really a manifestation of the desire for comfort.
We have to be attentive in finding the real reason we don’t do certain things. It might be tempting to ‘write myself off’ so that I may be exempted from even trying, and it is certainly the more ‘comfortable’ option, but no one ever got anywhere in life by choosing comfort over what truly needs to be done.
May we all merit to understand ourselves, our motives, and have the ability to make the right decision.
(Sources: Sichos Mussar 5731:9;The Duties of the Heart Aronson Press p.xlii; Drash Moshe, Nitzavim